FEATURE1 November 2005

Chat tricks


Online: Internet research isn’t the magic solution to every problem. But, argues Jo Cliff, it’s ideal for reaching out to hard-to-reach subcultures

In the not too distant past, researchers, with their tweeds, cords and sensible shoes, frowned on anyone who suggested speaking to kids over the phone, let alone using the internet. Such techniques, they argued, were fraught with biases and errors that would invalidate any research findings of interest. It was face-to-face or nothing.

Surprisingly, perhaps, some of this hostility still lingers with regard to online research. Which is a shame, because it allows kids to be what they can’t be with face-to-face or phone methodologies: themselves. No matter how well trained the interviewer or moderator, there is often simply insufficient time to develop a trust relationship with young respondents.

From the kids’ perspective, however, online research is fun, non-stressful, and convenient. They can complete a survey in their own time and within an environment of their choosing. Additionally, online research utilises a technology they are comfortable and familiar with, and one they use regularly to chat to their peer group. This helps shift the emphasis of the research process away from a rather academic, school-type scenario, to a highly familiar, positive social experience. Online research also allows us to use techniques which, by focusing on appearance, feel and design issues, can make the questionnaires work really hard. Used cleverly, features such as sliding scales, relevant images and creative formatting can dramatically improve the survey’s audience appeal.

In fact, Dubit finds young peoples’ online survey responses to be typically much fuller than those from other sources. Such open-ended responses can be used semi-qualitatively to pad out the numbers. By using a software package, such as GMI’s Net-MR, to code up the open-ended data automatically, researchers can have the best of both worlds: the nitty-gritty detail alongside a quantitative analysis of open-ends, without the painstaking manual coding process.

Even hard-to-reach groups without internet access at home can get access elsewhere: schools and other institutions, such as job centres, hospitals and children’s homes, are usually very willing to help with research surveys, for instance. We have conducted online surveys with historically difficult-to-reach groups, such as African/Caribbean teenagers, cancer patients and pregnant teenagers, and quickly realised the importance of integrating a ‘creative’ recruitment procedure into the research programme, as well as of incentivising both the kids and the respective institutions or organisations.

Qualitative research can also benefit from an online treatment; online focus groups and blogs have many inherent benefits, including low costs and quick turnarounds. New developments, such as virtual groups, mean that online focus groups are now seen as a genuine alternative to the real thing. Virtual focus groups work much like a chat room; young people, already familiar with the traditional chat room format, are invited to attend via an email link to a specially created, 3D chat room.

For example, we recently conducted virtual groups with a number of established teen tribe demographics, including ‘goths’ and ‘chavs’. Rooms were created specifically with each group in mind: the goths got a graveyard and the chavs a beach. Respondents entering the room chose a character and selected an outfit. Participants could then see, approach and interact with the moderator and each other by means of this online persona – a far cry from the traditional faceless bundle of text. The kids themselves were immediately enthused at taking part because it was different, fun and had a strong interactive element.

Online research does have its limitations, of course. In some specific instances it will never be able to replace the level of interaction and depth you can glean from face-to-face interviews and focus groups. Also it is by no means simple: to get the best results from kids, you need careful questionnaire design and recruitment processes.

Ultimately, though, online research provides a fantastic opportunity for the industry to update its image and gain more kudos with young people. But if we fail to adapt to the technological landscape of the future, then we still run the risk of being left out in the rain.

Jo Cliff is a research manager at Dubit

November | 2005